With Exactly No Help From My Friends
Putting the Solo Back in Solo Album

So right up front this week, I want to revise one of my Oscar picks.

Initially, I scoffed at the idea of Viola Davis getting a Best Supporting Actress nomination for 10 minutes of screen time. How good could she possibly be, I figured. It takes more than one 10-minute scene to cement a character and a performance.

That was before I saw Doubt.

Now, I think that if Davis doesn’t win this thing, that some injustice against God and man will have been done. Yes, she’s in one scene. It is the single best scene in an otherwise decent movie, and Davis, in that 10 minutes, becomes the heart, soul and center of Doubt. She shares that scene with Meryl Streep, and not only holds her own, but blows her fellow actress off the screen. Seriously. In a movie with Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and the great Amy Adams, Davis’ brave, heart-wrenching performance steals the show. She deserves this award.

I initially picked Taraji P. Henson, and while I liked her work, I am more than happy to present a slate of predictions freshly scrubbed clean of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Let’s all pretend it never happened.

Thank you for your kind indulgence. Your regularly scheduled music column resumes below.

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I’ve always been interested in one-man bands.

That’s partially, I think, because I am one – my hard drive is littered with songs I constructed from the ground up, playing every instrument. I’ve been doing things that way since I was a teenager. I would spend long hours in the basement, hunched over a four-track recorder, trying to get a bass line to match the piano part I’d already laid down, or stacking vocal harmonies atop one another. It was a lot of work, and the finished products usually sucked, so I can only imagine just how difficult a good one-man project must be.

It’s not that I don’t like interplay between musicians, or live improvisation and collaboration. I do. But there’s something fascinating to me about solo artists who take the word “solo” literally, like Todd Rundgren and Prince. For one thing, the singular vision of the artist remains undiluted – whether you like Something/Anything or not, it’s exactly what Rundgren wanted it to be. And likewise, there’s nowhere else to point the finger of blame – if you hate Rockin’ the Suburbs, it’s all Ben Folds’ fault, since he played (nearly) every instrument.

I like the idea of listening to a single visionary realize every element of a song, but I can understand why some don’t – music often thrives on creative collaboration, on talented players sparking off of one another. Paul McCartney (who will sometimes play every instrument on his albums) has never approached the heights of the Beatles in his solo career. Still, I admire people who will hunker down and do the work themselves, and take full responsibility for the results.

One of those people is Roger Joseph Manning Jr., but of course, I knew of him when he was just Roger Manning. In the early ‘90s, Manning was the keyboard genius in Jellyfish, still one of the finest power pop bands to ever walk the earth. Over two extraordinary (and extraordinarily detailed) albums, Jellyfish brought back the ‘70s Queen sound – oceans of harmonies, dozens of brilliantly arranged instruments – and married it to some of the greatest pop songs you’ll ever hear.

Since Jellyfish broke up in 1994, Manning has worked with Beck, Imperial Drag and the Moog Cookbook, but it took more than 10 years for him to release his amazing solo debut, The Land of Pure Imagination. A complete solo project, that album found him returning to the dizzying pop of Jellyfish, with indelible melodies rendered in candy-coated harmonies over intricate arrangements. But you could still feel that Manning was getting the hang of this one-man thing – the sound was a little thin in places, especially compared with the dense beauty of Jellyfish’s records.

Well, he’s got it now. Catnip Dynamite, Manning’s second solo album, is a massive whirlygig of sound, a fantastic journey through 11 big, big pop songs. Once again, he played every instrument (except for some pedal steel on one song), and I can only imagine how long it must have taken him to put this thing together. Just the harmonies alone would make Brian Wilson smile (pun absolutely intended), Manning’s voice overdubbed dozens of times on each track. The drums are often programmed, but just as often not, and the stacks of instruments on each song would make Axl Rose cry.

Overproduced? Not hardly. Catnip Dynamite is a throwback to a time when artists cared deeply about every element of their music, etching sonic details into every corner. It’s a headphone album, but it’s also tons of fun – Manning was always Jellyfish’s sense of humor, and that comes out more than once on this record. Take the first single, “Down in Front” – it’s a huge boogie-based pop tune, drowned in harmonies, made for dancing, and it’s honestly about people who stand up in front of you at movie theaters. It’s silly, but it’s awesome.

So is “Love’s Never Half as Good,” the second song – Manning establishes pretty early that he’s not taking things all that seriously here, and he drives it home with an out-of-nowhere Vegas-style spoken word section. (“Now, I know there’s plenty of you out there who know exactly what I’m talking about, so if you can dig it, I want you to put your hands together right now and sing along!”) But the song! The song is wonderful, a Rundgren-esque piano ballad complete with acoustic bass thumps, tympani rolls, and (again) some fantastic backing vocals. I haven’t heard a song like this in at least 10 years. It’s just beautiful.

Manning doesn’t always hit the mark, especially in the sillier first half. “My Girl” is just too sunny and plastic to work – most of this song is programmed, and it sounds a bit too Casiotone to soar, despite the vocals. And the production on “Haunted Henry,” the tale of a scary old war veteran and his haunted house, takes its camp-spookiness a tad too far. (The song itself, however, is strong.)

But more often than not, Manning’s complex, immaculately-produced pop makes its own case, particularly when things turn serious in the second half. “The Turnstile at Heaven’s Gate” is a wonder, all ‘70s prog on harpsichords and nasty guitars. But it’s the eight-minute “Survival Machine” that takes the prize – it’s the prettiest, creepiest song here, slowly unfolding over a delicate harpsichord motif to tell the story of the Manhattan Project and its aftermath. When the organs come in, it’s almost a religious experience. And “Living in End Times” is the sprightliest song about the book of Revelations I’ve ever heard.

Of course, Manning can’t help but end on a goofy note. “Drive-Thru Girl” is a faux-live singalong that’s just right. You may chuckle at lines like “I’m placing my order with you,” but believe me, you’ll be humming them for days. It’s pure Roger Manning – a brilliant pop song that pokes fun at itself, and makes you laugh along. When “Drive-Thru Girl” ends, all is right with the world.

Catnip Dynamite is certainly not for everyone. Like a lot of one-man projects, there’s a canned quality to some of it, and Manning’s willingness to be almost ludicrously silly at times may turn some off. But in Manning’s world, music can be smart and fun at the same time, and should be. Catnip Dynamite is a bigger, better, stranger album than Manning’s solo debut, and while it may take a few listens to grasp the full-color world Manning’s building here, it’s worth it.

(Catnip Dynamite came out in Japan last year, but the U.S. release, out last week, includes three bonus live tracks, including a stunning 11-minute version of Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding.” It does, however, lop off one song, “American Affluenza” – I imagine Oglio Records didn’t want to offend Americans with it, but I wish they’d let us decide for ourselves.)

A more consistent one-man project is Loney, Dear, whose fifth album, Dear John, hit stores last month. Loney, Dear is the work of Swedish wunderkind Emil Svanangen, who struck gold two years ago when Sub Pop gave his fourth album, Loney, Noir, a wide release. I heard it by accident – my local record store got a promo copy, and one of the counter jockeys randomly played it one night. And everyone in the store stopped what they were doing and crowded around, listening.

Svanangen makes what can best be described as intense delicate music. The songs on Loney, Noir all started with soft acoustic guitars and slowly built up, layer upon layer of instruments filling it out, until by the end the songs burst with life. Svanangen’s high, strong voice is a key selling point too, and he harmonizes with himself beautifully. Loney, Noir is a quietly detailed record of lush pop songs, here and gone in half an hour. It was one of my favorite records of 2007.

But it wasn’t noir, not by any stretch. No, that description more aptly fits Dear John, a darker and fuller album that gives more, but leaves you wanting just the same. You can hear the difference immediately. “Airport Surroundings” kicks things off with a striking electronic beat and a minor-key melody that sounds like streetlights zipping by on a darkened road. The acoustic instruments are gone, replaced by keyboards and whirring beats, but they fit Svanangen’s vocals, especially in the wordless refrain, beautifully.

“Everything Turns to You” is even more of a change-up, setting a spooky melody to subtle yet lightning-fast beats and creepy synthesizer lines. The tension builds up over three minutes until, like most Loney, Dear songs, it ends abruptly. I didn’t mind as much when the music was cathartic, but these songs are taut and pulse-quickening, with no release. We’re in more familiar territory with ballad “I Was Only Going Out” and “Harsh Words,” but “Under a Silent Sea” puts us right back into the darkness. That one is particularly creepy, Svanangen doubling his vocal line through a tone box over a pulsing bass line. When this song blossoms partway through, it’s something to behold.

Throughout, most of the instrumentation is electronic, which seems an easier choice for a one-man band like this one. But it leaves me with the sense that Svanangen just didn’t work as hard on Dear John as he has in the past – that’s probably not true, and the album does open up new worlds of sound for him, but the perception is unavoidable. My favorite moment on this album is the one that breaks his solo album ethos – Andrew Bird adds delicate, gorgeous violin to the brief “I Got Lost.”

Give Dear John time, though, and it reveals its dark beauty. At its heart, this is still Loney, Dear, and though he’s surrounded by (and often submerged under) new sounds, the songs are still little wonders. Dig “Distant Lights” – it’s marked by a thumping bass beat and droning keyboards, but the melody is tight and Svanangen’s backing vocals are lovely as ever. (Of course, then the synth choir comes in…) There’s nothing wrong with this album, it just gives off a completely different feel than the earlier Loney, Dear records, and that can take some getting used to.

But that’s part of the thrill of a one-man project. If Svanangen wants to completely shift gears, he can, and no one can stop him. I applaud him for taking steps in a new direction, even if the resulting album doesn’t thrill me like his last one did. I’m sure, given repeated listens, I will find much to love about this record – it’s already sinking in, in fact. The closing title track is as beautiful a song as Svanangen has written, proof that he’s still the same man under it all. If it takes a little longer to find him under Dear John’s stormy clouds, well, so be it. I will press play again and again.

Next week… well, I’m not sure. I have several options. Tune in seven days from now to find out which one I picked.

See you in line Tuesday morning.